In the 2009-2010 television season, two shows about extended families began airing on TV. The first, Modern Family, had two superb opening seasons and then tapered off to a relative inconsistency due to an overreliance on the familiar tropes of its principal characters. The second, Parenthood, stumbled in its first few episodes but quickly found its footing in (for the most part) utilizing its wide ensemble in a variety of different storylines. There are many characters on NBC’s one-hour drama that are very different than they were in the first episode, while the Pritchett and Dunphy clans have barely changed from the pilot.
Now, that is not to put Modern Family down. It still manages to impress with its dynamic cast and their superb comic timing. However, it is hard to obtain a flat-out great episode of the show anymore. Compare that to Parenthood, a series where the relationships between the characters and the stakes in their story arcs change every week. There, the actors have more room to show their range and delve into richer emotional territory. In the manic 22 minutes that Modern Family has ever week to stuff its 11 principal characters into viable storylines, originality and depth are not always in high supply.
With that in mind, we reach the seventh episode of Modern Family’s fifth season, and the first after a two-week hiatus. Titled “A Fair to Remember,” the episode is (as usual for a show with 11 actors to keep busy each week) overstuffed with stories, but most of the comic bits work because they subvert our expectations. The characters may still be their same old selves, but at least the writers are figuring out nifty ways to occupy them over a half-hour of TV without relying too much on their staples.
This episode comes from writer Emily Spivey, who wrote for MAD TV and Saturday Night Live – which explains why parts of the episode feel like goofy sketches that are refreshing even if they do not coalesce with the rest of the stories.